Sep 25, 2015

Southern Malaysia

Malaysia passed like a dream of Chinese food and condensed-milk coffee. The border town of Johor Baru was unremarkable, but it was nice to be back in a land where we didn’t blow an entire day’s budget on a dormitory bed.

Johor street life as viewed from our RM 42 hotel room

The rains poured down in a torrent, causing us to seek shelter in one of the abundant juice shops.

One thing Johor had going for it was the best ice kecang I’ve tasted.

Red beans, palm sugar, jellies, tropical fruit, peanuts, and a topping of condensed cream and ice cream

We soon made track for isolated Tioman Island to lay low for a while and catch up on writing about travels through Indonesia.

Pristine waters

Beach sunsets

And beach relics

Melaka (Malacca) was an influential trading port throughout most of history until the British took it over. According to the Melaka Maritime Museum, everything was going fine until they basically ran it straight into the ground by developing the ports of Penang to the north and Singapore in the south while ignoring Melaka’s growing fiscal tribulations.

Street art on the river.. err, river art that is

The eccentric rickshaws of Melaka

Coconut peeling skilz!South

Sep 19, 2015



Ah, what to say about Singapore. I don't think we had been there 12 hours before Nick and I began to talk of moving there. By 24 hours in we were seriously considering it.

Beautiful botanical gardens

On day 2 we were sitting in the common area of our hostel using the speedy WiFi: Nick on the laptop, me on my phone. "Whatcha looking at?" I asked him after a while of silence. He (slightly sheepishly) turned the laptop toward me, he was researching the tax situation for foreign residents in Singapore. I laughed and showed him my phone, I was looking up rent prices here.

An item of note about Singapore: English is the main language here. There are 4 official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil, but English is the most widely spoken and used officially and in schools.

We spent a week there eating, wandering, eating, and drinking our first proper cocktails since Melbourne almost 4 months prior. One might ask why after 60 days in Indonesia, none of which led to a desire to move there, we would leave Singapore after only a week. I wouldn't have known the answer to that question either before the planning for this trip started (drastically improving my world geography skills.)

An item of note about Singapore: it's just a city. It's a country that's just a "little red dot" on almost any map. "Little Red Dot" is a common theme in business names here. **The more you know**

We started our first full day by sleeping in. Normally not a noteworthy accomplishment, but after Indonesia we marveled at our ability to sleep past 4 AM (no roosters!), to sleep past 4:30 AM (the nearby Mosque didn't blare a call to prayer!), and even to sleep past 6:30 AM when everyone in Indonesia has been awake so long that street, TV, and other miscellaneous noises are just everywhere. We checked into our second hostel (an unexpected holiday weekend left us with disconnected bookings, more on the holiday later) and were unexpectedly given an upgrade to pods instead of bunk beds. A fantastic upgrade and an auspicious beginning to our first full day.

An item of note about Singapore: the national pastime is DINING. They take great pride in their food (for very good reason) and bring together so many different cultures and cuisines into vast arrays of delicious dishes.

There are "hawker centres" all around Singapore which are essentially street food, but in a building instead of on the street. Massive collections of different food vendors all in a large building with a roof and tables.

Photo from Wikipedia.

Also sometimes you'll just come across some pigskins next to the sidewalk. Mmm, lunch.

Nick and I went to a few of these hawker centers and consistently got delicious and very cheap food. (The national pastime is dining!! And it's cheap! I'm in love with this country.)

Our search for proper cocktails also brought us happiness and relief. These bars actually have (and know how to use) bitters and aperitifs. We found a gin bar called The White Rabbit which reminded us of our favorite bar back in New York, Gin Palace. We found a Japanese restaurant which served sake and sake cocktails. We found a bar called Bitters and Love which reminded us of our other favorite bar in New York, Amor y Amargo (translated: Love and Bitters). And my personal favorite, we found The Library, a secret bar behind the facade of a whiskey shop with a password to get inside to the bar

Gin cocktail with house-made tonic!

Secret bar!

We also went to the top of the most awesome looking building I've ever seen: the Marina Bay Sands hotel.

3 towers with a ship stretching across the top

From the top

We had a nice view of the "Supertree Grove," a collection of 50 meter tall man-made trees which looked pretty cool in the fading light, and then treated us to a surprise light show after sunset. As we were sitting high above the trees watching the show I was in awe of how lit up and colorful Singapore becomes after dark. This was not a special treat for the holiday weekend (yes, we're almost to the explanation of the surprise holiday), but something that happens every night! The next day we went back and experienced the light show from the ground beneath the trees and it was as amazing as I had hoped.

Surprise light show!

Less surprising light show the next day

The holiday:

A couple weeks before leaving Singapore a friend of ours from New York who's been living in Hong Kong told us she would be arriving in Singapore on the 8th of August and would we be around then? A quick look at our Indonesian visa expiry and we were shocked to be able to report to her that we would be entering Singapore on the night of the 5th and would definitely be able to see her there! Curious as to what (other than how awesome the country is) was taking her to Singapore then we found out that we'd be arriving, purely by the chance of our visas, just in time for the country's 50th Anniversary! The Independence day, August 9th, made the week we were there a very festive time.

In addition to the amazing coincidence of arriving just at the correct time to Singapore, we were also able to see our first familiar face from back home in 6 months.

Not only that, but Nick got recognized across a crowded restaurant and an old lab mate and we spent an evening with him showing us around.

Nick's reunion with an old lab mate

All in all, a great week spent in what may be surpassing New Zealand as my new favorite country.

Can't go to Singapore and not try the Singapore Sling!

My favorite part

Sep 15, 2015

Escape from Indonesia

Our visa allottment was ticking away as we entered our last city in Indonesia: Jambi, on the island of Sumatra. Singapore is only accessible via ship from the island of Batam, so upon our arrival on Sunday our first order of business was to confirm the ability to get to Batam on Wednesday, the last day of our visa.

From Jambi we could get picked up at our hotel at 6AM, take a 2-3 hour car drive to the harbor (nobody could agree how long the ride would take), catch a boat at 10AM to Batam (5-6 hours, more consensus on this one), and arrive in plenty of time to catch the last boat to Singapore at 8:30PM. Good. We chose to book through our hotel an inclusive trip car & boat to Batam instead of booking separately because of how important it was to get all the way to Batam that day. We also had spent the last 60 days haggling for practically every form of transportation and many other things, we were willing to pay the hotel markup to have it all taken care of in one fell swoop. We confirmed the price and pickup times twice. 350,000 Rp each, so 700,000 Rp, we would pay the driver on pickup.

All of that taken care of we proceeded to check out Jambi for a few days.

Beautiful pedestrian bridge
Nick found boxer shorts!

We met a bear rescued from poachers

There isn't much to say about Jambi. We were ready for the next chapter: Singapore.

Wednesday morning at 6AM sharp our driver arrived. After this good omen things went downhill fast. Despite our prompt and early pick-up, the driver began just (apparently) aimlessly driving around the city chatting on his cell phone and asking us if we wanted to stop for coffee. We declined, saying we needed to get going to Batam. An hour later, still in Jambi, we showed up at the ticketing office to pay. The price was 60,000 Rp each, car only. The boat was neither included, nor did the ticketing office know how much it would cost. We argued for a couple minutes, but this company clearly didn't have service to Batam, only to the harbor, so we gave up and clambered back into the car with the other passengers we'd picked up here. It was now 7:05 AM as we pulled out. We still had no clear answer about how long the drive would take, but given that we were now on our own to get the ferry ticket, we crossed our fingers for closer to 2 hours than 3.

The driver was a maniac, bombing down highways and smaller roads alike. I defy anyone to have gotten to that harbor faster. It took exactly 3 hours. The math whizzes among you will be perking up about now.

"If the boat leaves at 10AM, they left at 7:05AM, and the trip took 3 hours, that leaves our protagonists with how much time to buy their tickets and board?"

If you said "negative 5 minutes," you take the cake.

As soon as the car stopped, I scrambled out of it and began hurredly putting on my pack. A gentleman with a ticket book told me to slow down and not worry, but I just squeaked "10 O'clock" and continued to hurry. He asked our names and we asked the price. 470,000 Rp. Each. Cue the math whizzes again:

"If the price quoted was 700,000 to get all the way to Batam, and the car cost 120,000, how much cash will our protagonists have left after paying 940,000 Rp for the ferry?"

If you said "negative 360,000 Rp," you take the cake.

It is worth mentioning at this point that this was the last purchase we intended to make in Indonesia, and our last ATM withdrawl had been made accordingly. Including a small stash to buy a coffee or snack on the ferry, we only had 600,000 Rp left, and some small change. And here is a man telling us that to get on the ferry (which theoretically left 5 minutes ago) we need 940,000.

We ran. Backpacks not even fastened around our waists, we ran onto the dock to get past the buildings and see if the ferry was even still here. It was not. A frothy wake leading away from the dock led our eyes to a speedboat zooming away from us toward Batam. Another man, not the one we had fled, saw our distress and told us not to worry. He made a quick cellphone call and the boat turned around.

At this point we get to the end of the dock where we will load and he holds out his hand for our tickets.

"We don't have tickets yet."

He looks only very slightly miffed, but we have some time before the boat's back, so he pulls out a ticket book. "940,000 Rp."

Our last hope, that the original price had been some tout taking a commission and overcharging accordingly, was dead. The actual price of the boat really was 470,000 each. "No, the price should be 300,000 each."

He laughed in our faces.

"We called yesterday and they said 300,000!"
^not strictly true, but much easier to say in a language you don't actually speak than "our hotel lied to us and booked us a package that doesn't exist for 350,000 and we've already paid 60,000."

At this point we were pulling out our money, our last ditch negotiation tactic, the good 'ol, "this is literally all we have" trick.

"Ok, just 400,000 each then."

"No, all we have," Nick pulls out his stash, "is 600,000." I pull out my meager change, "and 20,000."

Now he looks significantly more miffed. I can't ever know exactly what the next thing he said was, but a couple words, context, and tone lead me to believe it was something along the line of: "We called the boat to turn around for you and you don't even have a ticket or enough money to buy one?!"

He pauses, the boat is very close now. "Give me that." He takes the 600,000 from Nick. He ignores my 20,000. The ropes are being thrown to the dock and the boat is close enough to board now. A young woman holding tickets holds out her hand for ours. The gentleman steps forward waving our cash. I catch "600,000" and pipe in "and 20,000." The man laughs and mockingly repeats "and 20,000." It's goodnatured mocking, I think he's moved on from miffed to extremely amused at the incompetence of these tourists.

The woman hesitates, rolls her eyes, then takes the money. Nick and I step on board.

Aboard the ferry: relief and juuust a bit of crazy

We made it to Batam at 5:30, got on a 6:30 ferry to Singapore, and breathed many sighs of relief and disbelief at our day.

Sep 11, 2015


Having purchased a ticket for 3,600 rupiah, we embarked on a train journey toward the coast on the western end of Java that would be our best-value transportation of the entire trip. For four hours we were ensconced in the luxury of an air-conditioned train compartment, complete with electrical outlets and a toilet this clean!!

Unbelievably clean. How does this one compare Toilets of the World??

Pretty much this. For four hours.

To pass the time I started reading about massive volcanic eruptions throughout history, as you do. You've probably heard the name Krakatau or Krakatoa at some point when you were absent-mindedly binge-watching the Discovery channel while folding laundry or reading Niezsche. But if you never stopped to think about what it might have been like to witness the colossal tectonic power power that was unleashed on August 27th, 1883, take a moment to think about that now. In fact to witness the event at too-close a range would have been literally beyond the human capacity for experience. The explosion was the loudest sound ever heard by humans in recorded history; if you were unlucky to be within 10 miles you would have been instantly and very permanently deafened. While you may think that would suck a lot, you would probably be much more worried about the 11 CUBIC MILES of ROCK that had just been blasted into the sky above your head. The sea flash-boiled creating a steam cushion that carried the pyroclastic flows of superheated rock and gas shooting across 30 miles of ocean to the Sumatran coast like the world's least-popular air hockey puck. This would be shortly followed by a 100 foot wall of water moving at a more leisurely pace.

The entire island got blasted into bits (nifty animation from Wikipedia)

By the time we reached the tiny ferry town of Merak on the coast, I was decided to visit Krakatau and climb the slopes of the newly emergent Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatau) that has since risen, boiling, out of the sea in 1927. Anak Kakatau is located on an island midway between the Indonesian centerpieces of Java and Sumatra. Before long we had ganged up with another vulcanite, Isabelle to pool our resources for a boat to the this geological epicenter.

From the Sumatran coast to Krakatau. My haircut here is the unfortunate result of employing a barber whose language I didn't speak

The black beached of soft volcanic sand gave way to rocks littered with jagged, newborn rocks loosely strewn about.

The smoldering angst of Anak Krakatau; this whole thing has grown out of the sea in less than 90 years

We didn't make it to the crater rim. It turns out that you can't get up that far and even to climb too high is extremely dangerous. When the razor sharp volcanic rocks bigger than me started tumbling down the mount with every step I knew I had to turn back. This is actually the most dangerous place I've ever been in my life. The only way to get down was the surf on the scree slides and try not to fall and get buried alive!

On the way out to Krakatau we stopped to spend the night on the small island of Sebesi which had some charms of its own.

Sebesi sunset

This local spends all day making bricks like this, no chair or anything required. He was very insistent that I document his technique.

Before long we had the legendary volcano to stern and were making waves back toward Sumatra and a long journey ahead to Jambi, our last stop in Indonesia.

Smell ya later, you sulfurous kid! (It's fuming at this remark, I know)

Another long, overnight train ride!

 Making fresh peanut sauce for my gado-gado, the only food available out our bus stop in Palembang

 A brief respite from the long bus ride to Jambi. The houses in the background are for swiflets to roost and make bird's nests out of their saliva. These nests are then sold for insane prices for the culinary cravings of the Hong Kong and US markets.

 We finally arrived in Jambi, with just four days left on our Indonesian visa

Sep 5, 2015

Jakarta School for Underprivileged Youth

Having made our way across 11 Indonesian islands to the teeming capital city of Jakarta we were ready to visit our next WorldEd project since we covered their financial literacy program in Timor-Leste. We are now very excited to be able to share with you our experience at a school for homeless and underprivileged youth.

In Depok, a town just south of the main capital city, World Education has been funding a school for children unable, for one reason or another, to attend public school. These children are either too poor to have a government ID or legal papers, are orphans, stopped school at a young age and are too old to continue, have a criminal record, or are working and unable to attend full time. The school is called Master, and it provides a necessary environment for the many children who come to register every day. World Education has been involved with the school for the last three years with their ConnectEd project, funded by the Alcatel-Lucent Foundation.

NERoute team with Mustami, director of the YABIM foundation

Mustami, the director of YABIM, the Indonesian foundation which runs the school, holds a quiet, benevolent presence, as well as the respect of the school’s many students. Their adoration was clear as he rode in on a motorbike, immediately clung to by six or seven children.

We sat down in the school’s office, a professional looking stack of converted shipping containers, with Mustami. The office has electricity, a computer, an impressive array of binders arranged on shelves, and stays open every day of the week for potential students to register. He spoke passionately about the school, the students, and the future. He filled us in on how the school managed to educate thousands of children over the 14 years it’s been running with an all-volunteer teaching force and wafer-thin budget.

Administrative center of the school

Master currently has 1,800 students attending, 800 full time (six days a week) and 1,000 part time (three days a week.) In addition to their part/full time curriculum, 118 students are also attending vocational training, learning the skills of vehicle maintenance, cooking, welding, beauty salon work, cellphone servicing, business analysis, and more. In the past year 465 students passed their grade 12 exam and graduated from Master.

As we were talking in the office, a young woman came in to man the desk. She is a former student and now volunteers in the office. She told us that 10 people had already registered that day. It was only noon. The school is kept on its legs by a large number of volunteers. People from the community and former students come in as instructors and office workers to make sure that Master can continue.

The 10 prospective students who registered that day will be put into a “learning group” for 3-6 months before being enrolled in regular part/full time classes. This time, closely supervised by the learning group’s instructor, will determine their best place within the school. The number of new recruits seems far larger than the school could maintain over time, but Mustami informed us that many children come and go at various stages. Sometimes they have to move away, sometimes they need to try to make money instead of going to school. He brightened noticeably as he pointed out the possibility of them leaving because circumstances have allowed them to enter public schools. Sometimes their family circumstances will improve and public school will be a viable option again. This and graduation are the happiest reasons for students to cease their attendance at Master.

300 current students are living on the premises, the school also allows students’ families to join them in lodging here

As we were leaving the container office, a small boy pelted out of nowhere into Mustami’s arms, chattering away happily in Indonesian. We were told that he is a five year old orphan who was brought here; he lives here at the school, along with any of their students who have nowhere else to go. Approximately 60% of students have families, but often they live very far away. The other 40% are orphans, and Master acts as their family.

Excited about reading and cameras!

In between showing off his reading skills with Nick and running around with the other children, he would excitedly talk to Mustami, hold his hand, and hug him. In the short time that we interacted with him, he appeared happy, healthy, and able to indulge in the joy of being five years old.

Ikik, six years old: reader extraordinaire

I also sad down for a short time with an adorable six year old named Ikik. He lives close by with his parents and loves coming to school here. I took out a small book and he excitedly showed off his reading ability before proudly informing me that he is learning to write and draw as well. He talked about playing on the playground here and said his favorite thing is playing sports after school with all his friends. At this point I let him go do just that. After very politely shaking my hand, he scampered off toward a little girl holding a ball.

Computers provided by the ConnectEd program

The computer labs, two well stocked labs with 36 computers each, are a point of great pride for Master. Providing all of its students with computer skills training assists greatly in their future job opportunities. The school has also been able to offer vocational training courses in a number of computational areas. One former student who specialized in Digital Media was able to land a job at a highly reputed video production house in Jakarta.

Ucok, currently enrolled at Master

Ucok, an 18 year old current student, attends Master with his 17 year old brother. He has been attending Master for three years, but has had to take time off intermittently in order to work and earn money. A public school would not be able to accommodate his extended absences. Ideally Master would like their students to attend continuously, but when, like Ucok, they need to leave, Master will always welcome them back.

Ucok finds school here much more exciting than he ever did before. He and his brother live here at the school, their family live on a different island. He spoke warmly of the flexibility Master offers, explaining that he has left twice to work for a short while, but always returns to school here. He takes guitar lessons in addition to the base curriculum for his year.

He told me of his desire to continue to University if he can get a scholarship. When I asked what he wants to study there, he glanced shyly at Edy, acting as our translator, and admitted that his goal is to learn English and become a translator. His awe and respect for Edy’s talent were clearly visible and with my questions finished, he took a few minutes to chat alone with Edy about learning English and translating.

Ucok confiding in Edy his desire to be a translator

August, a volunteer instructor and former student

August, 25 years old, is in University now and attended Master for three years. He had stopped school in year six in Central Java. When he moved up to the Jakarta area he was working in a compound when he heard about the opportunity that Master offered. He was 20 years old, too old to continue his education in traditional school, which he had left as a 14 year old, but not too old to be allowed a second chance by Master. His boss brought him to the school for registration and he attended here for three years. After being sponsored for his graduation exam, August earned a scholarship and is now studying social development at University. In addition to his studies and continuing work for the estimable boss who brought him to Master, he comes back to the school once a week as an instructor.

His goal upon graduating with his University degree is to work in Education. He hopes to be able to help more disadvantaged youth like himself, giving them an opportunity as Master did for him. When I asked how he felt about Master, he paused to collect himself. Slowly he answered that Master gave him the spirit to continue his life. The people here became his family and he is so thankful that he found his way here.

The foundation that runs Master also has a health center and advocacy training, working closely with the local community. Appealing to the community by providing these wonderful services, they have gained support and volunteers have come from across Java. People who recognize the good work of the foundation will offer themselves as instructors, office work, or provide what other help they can. People also spread the word around the community, ensuring that when someone has a need, they know that Master can help them.

One of the school’s large expenses is exam fees. In a huge blow to impoverished students, there are exams at the end of grades 6, 9 and 12, each costing 300,000 IDR, (approximately 23 USD at the time of our visit). Some of these children have recently been living under bridges and overpasses, for them $23 is an unimaginably large sum. Without passing these exams, there is no graduation from high school, seriously impacting job prospects and entirely eliminating university prospects. Master has been paying these fees for their students, and many of them have gone on to university with scholarships.

Unfortunately, the ConnectEd project which has been supporting Master was a three year program and had just ended when we arrived in Jakarta, leaving the future funding of the school in question. To make matters worse, impending construction of a shopping mall nearby is threatening to seize part of the school’s land through Indonesia’s version of eminent domain.

Mustami has a contingency plan for every worst-case scenario. “Right now we are taking loans to cover the students’ costs for government exams and graduation certificates.” His conviction evokes a clear impression of how important it is for these children to be able obtain their graduation certificates. We have to help them succeed through that last step of their education, whatever the cost. He has also been searching for and securing some alternate funding sources for repaying those loans in the the long term. While Mustami’s sheer force of will may be able to keep the school going along with a slashed budget, there is certainly a need for more funding to support this wonderful school. The students will continue to be taught to the same standard, but without funding, the school will soon be forced to stop applying their students for graduation exams. It is painful to see such a trial for this school which has already captured our hearts.

Edy, Rieni, and the NERoute team in Jakarta

We sat down with Edy, Country Manager, and Rieni, HR/Office Manager, at the Jakarta World Education office, to discuss the projects, past and ongoing, in which their office has been involved. The conclusion of the project, and with it the funding for Master, was emotionally difficult. This goes to show how limited the resources are when it comes to helping real people on the ground, even when stretching that money to the absolute maximum. They continue to support the Master school by lending expertise and advice, but without additional major donor support current financial resources are all dedicated to other projects.

World Education’s Indonesian office oversees the microfinance and financial literacy project in Timor-Leste, on which we reported previously. In partnership with World Education Australia (Good Return), the office also works with palm oil farmers in Borneo, the West Kalimantan province of Indonesia. This project is similar to that in Timor-Leste. In addition to the financial literacy component a Farmer Field School has also been established for extensive training on sustainable agricultural practices and farm operations.

Another major project that World Education is carrying out in Indonesia is to work with the the government school system to improve school administration and teaching practices throughout the country. This is part of a major initiative of USAID called PRIORITAS where World Education is instrumental in providing training to school administration officials and teachers.

Our trip in Jakarta was enjoyable for multiple reasons, but meeting Edy, Rieni, Mustami, and the students is top on the list. Witnessing in person the Master school may even be top of all our 60 days in Indonesia.

This kid reads Indonesian so much better than Nick!